Friday, June 22, 2012

A Colorblind Culture That Will Revenge For Good Cause: A Social Anthropology of Four Brothers.

The Good: Decent acting, Interesting characters, Well-executed plot, Good direction
The Bad: Far too many "types," Problematic lack of consequences
The Basics: Despite limitations in terms of some of the characters simply taking on archetypal roles, Four Brothers works hard to defy a lot of stereotypes.

I was surprised, given how many people have recommended I see Boyz N The Hood, that I had not yet seen a single film by acclaimed director John Singleton. Having watched Four Brothers, a movie that serves as vehicle for Andre Benjamin ("Andre 3000" to Outkast fans), I have to say that Singleton rightfully deserves his reputation as one of the best directors working in America today. He may not produce a yearly movie (a la Spike Lee), but he seems to make up for it with the qualitative results that make for significant movies that will last in the collective unconscious.

When Evelyn Mercer is killed in a convenience store robbery, her four adopted sons reunite for her funeral. Bobby, the oldest of the quartet, soon learns that the death of the matriarch might well not be a random crime, but rather a calculated attack, a hit on the Mercers. Bobby easily convinces brothers Angel and Jack to help him avenge their mother's death, but Jeremiah, now a respected businessman trying to revitalize the community, is resistant to any retribution. What follows in a vigilante investigation that puts the four Mercer boys against a corrupt gang that pretty much owns Detroit, including the police department, which is investigating both the Victor Sweet gang and the Mercer boys.

Four Brothers is most intriguing for its vision, which I give a lot of credit to David Elliot, Paul Lovett (the writers) and John Singleton for creating. The negative aspects of this intrigue are simple and direct. The movie has no strong female characters, save the deceased Evelyn who is wise, good, but somewhat nagging, and Jack, the token homosexual brother, is treated rather poorly by the others. In this way, the movie reinforces very negative stereotypes toward both gays and women in the culture it is depicting.

But what it does right is even more compelling if one views this as a Man's movie. Like ignoring Sigmund Freud's half-assed attempts to explore female psychology - which he had no interest or significant studies on - the three creators of Four Brothers seem most interested in telling a story about men and if viewed that way, Four Brothers is certainly an above average movie and a surprisingly positive one. The Mercer brothers are close with an established history and comfort level between them, but they are not all the same.

While Bobby is clearly the leader of the bunch, Angel frequently goes off on his own, exercising his own judgment and values to do his own part of the investigation and quest for justice. This works rather well on a character level and it helps to smartly differentiate him from brother Jeremiah. And Jack defies some of the stereotypes thrust on him when he volunteers at points in the movie to do various dangerous things in his emotive quest for vengeance.

But the family here is a family and that is the vision that Elliot, Lovett and Singleton create. Two of the brothers are white, two are black, but they are a functional family unit where race matters very little. Four Brothers rightly makes the connections that our society is much more controlled by economics than ethnicity. That is to say that the traditional stereotypes that are engaged in Four Brothers fall more along the lines of economics than traditional ethnic stereotypes. This is embodied most in the characterizations of Bobby and Jeremiah. Bobby uses a sense of street justice that a white character could not traditionally pull off and Jeremiah, as an up and coming businessman who is very concerned with protocol embodies both the black man who pulls himself up out of poverty but also takes the role usually more focused on white characters in movies with black casts. That is in Four Brothers, Jeremiah is not competing with whites for his positions but other black characters and Jeremiah's concerns are mostly white collar. And Jeremiah's character reinforces the strength of the ideals of collective bargaining in the blue collar sector and his character effectively transitions from a blue collar to white collar worker as part of social mobility that is an ideal in the culture. And it works.

One of the most telling moments of the movie, strangely, is a bathroom scene. While Bobby is on the toilet, he's talking to Angel and Jack is in the shower. The scene, which is short and not terribly earth shattering in the movement of the movie, is very telling for what the movie is trying to say. Despite the jibes of the others toward Jack, Bobby has no problem being near-naked in front of him and Angel has no problems with walking in the two in the bathroom. Ultimately, this creates an atmosphere that is strangely powerful about the level of connection of this family and when people in the future look back on Four Brothers, this will be one of the scenes cited that illustrates that interethnic relations are supported by integration down to the family level as opposed to any form of segregation.

John Singleton deserves a lot of credit. As the man who creates the vision on the screen from the page, Singleton is responsible for making a fairly straightforward vigilante murder investigation visually interesting. He succeeds admirably. In fact, one of the best examples of Singleton's success is with a car chase scene. Car chases are fairly passe. We've seen people chase one another in cars. Even a television show like "Alias" can afford to do a decent car chase scene. But we get the chase scene. It's usually a bridge scene between two character scenes used to move the plot by either resulting in the capture of the quarry - which forces the character choices of what to do with that person or thing - or the escape of the fleeing person, which forces the characters to either try again, try a different methodology or give up. Singleton takes a cliche and makes it visually interesting with, of all things, characters who are acting essentially as cheerleaders. As Bobby, Angel and Jack are pursuing the two men they suspect are the gunmen who killed Evelyn, Bobby is cheering Angel on to shoot their car, there's yelling not to lose them and the whole feel of the scene is surprisingly original. It does not feel like every other car chase scene we've seen before in movies.

On a simple storytelling level, though, there is a lot in Four Brothers that is less than stellar. In the scenes involving the police officers, there is much that is oversimplified. I'm not writing about Lt. Green's "self-defense" brush-off of the gunfight that occurs in plain sight on the street (that actually works) but rather the representations of the characters themselves. Just as Sofi is "crazy girlfriend," Jack is "gay brother," Lt. Green represents the detective with integrity vs. Detective Fowler who is nothing but an embodiment of "corrupt cop." And it is the lack of consequences for the collateral actions in Four Brothers that will trouble those who look back on this film. We understand the desire for vengeance when the matriarch is killed, but that there are no negative consequences for the characters is hard to swallow. Especially in a movie that seems to argue for the need for personal responsibility and family.

What sells the underlying concept of Four Brothers, though is the acting. It's always nice to see Josh Charles and his role in Four Brothers is cool. Having just seen Crash, it was nice to see Terrance Howard playing Lt. Green, a very different character from his role in Crash, but with that same sense of dignity that he brings to bear as a quality actor. And every scene that Fionnula Flanagan is in as Evelyn Mercer, she works well. Flanagan plays the role with a sense of something between dignified matriarch and nagging specter. She adds subtlety with her soft voice and the simplest of looks.

It is the quartet of Garrett Hedlund, Andre Benjamin, Tyrese Gibson and Mark Wahlberg that is responsible for selling Four Brothers. They pull it off. The quartet has more natural on-screen chemistry than half the romances I've seen in recent memories. As a perfect example, Wahlberg, Gibson, Benjamin and Hedlund are a more convincing, more natural unit of individuals who are bonded to one another than Kirsten Dunst and Orlando Bloom tried to pull off in Elizabethtown (reviewed here!). The four are believable as a family in the way that they are at ease with one another in their body language. It transcends the lines on the page. And they sell it.

Ultimately, Four Brothers is an urban story and when one accepts the conceits of that world, the movie works extraordinarily well. As important, it defines and defies that world for those who are not a part of it, so for example while the quartet is a family there is almost no physical contact between them throughout the movie. It's hard to hold onto old stereotypes and traditional viewpoints of the urban culture when one watches an interethnic family unified toward common goals motivated by a familial sense of love.

Perhaps in the near future, Singleton will work to push the envelope in such a work and the characters will be emotively connected in such a way as to allow them to show not only respect for one another but genuine affection.

For other works with Tyrese Gibson, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Transformers: Dark Of The Moon
Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen
Death Race


Check out how this movie stacks up against other films I have reviewed by visiting my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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